I watched much of President Obama’s Farewell Address from 30,000 feet. I was flying home from Los Angeles where I’d gone for a meeting to discuss ways to change the lens through which independents — the nearly 40 percent of Americans who consider themselves other than Democrats or Republicans — are seen. Of course, the technology that makes it possible to watch live TV while six miles above the earth is mind-blowing. I grew up watching black and white TV at sea level, with a funny looking antenna on top that had to be periodically adjusted to clear the picture. That I could view the President bidding farewell to the nation in real time while JetBlue flew me home at 600 miles an hour seemed improbable, even though it was happening before my very eyes.
Nowadays, the subject of what each of us sees is hotly debated. Supposedly, about half the country sees one thing and the other half sees something else, at least as far as politics is concerned. Surely, that is an oversimplification. Maybe we need a national conversation about how we see what we see. Of course, we’d have to find a way to conduct such a conversation, given that we seem to see things so differently. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Back to Obama’s Farewell.
I liked the end of the President’s speech the best. I thought his “love poem” to Michelle was deeply touching. And, unlike the rest of the talk, it was self-revealing. I admired how she was able to take it in, with millions of people watching. Accepting public expressions of love can be difficult, because it can be raw, even rough, to feel the vulnerability of the expresser. Coincidentally, I was with my father, Murray Harold Salit, last weekend to celebrate his 90th birthday where many friends and family proffered their love for him. He amazed me with the grace of his acceptance. As Michelle did. I thought the Obamas’ public display of deep affection for one another was a gift to the nation.
Most of the President’s speech was, I thought, rather ordinary and, ironically, flew too far above the felt experience of the turmoil that the country is going through. Unlike the cynics and critics, I believe he believed his words could be healing. I don’t think they were. Obama likes to focus on the beauty that is the “American idea,” on the Enlightenment values it embodies. But it seems to me that the country is grappling much more with its ugliness than its beauty right now.
Hold on a minute. Before you jump to conclusions, that is not a statement about Donald Trump or about his supporters. It’s a statement about our country. America has always had its ugliness. The grit and desperation of the frontier. The violence and sadism of slavery. The extermination of native peoples. Brother fighting brother in the Civil War. The human cost of building the railroads. Sending our young men — and now women — off to war where unspeakable things happen. Not to mention the profound conflictedness of being a nation that loves freedom while inflicting a profound sexual and cultural shame on its people. America the Beautiful. America the Ugly. America the Conflicted. Part of what made Donald Trump the perfect candidate was the part of his message that said America shouldn’t hide its ugliness. After years of politically correct framings of our values, and a denial of the conflictedness of the American experience, the cork simply popped.
In his speech, Obama said that politics in our country has always been a battle of ideas. That inequality corrodes our democracy. That we are in this together and that we rise and fall as one. Strangely enough, when I listened to these words, I heard their opposite. We might like to thrive off of a battle of ideas but our idea of battle has gone awry. Our democracy — as it is practiced in the hardball fumes of partisan politics — is corroding any semblance of equality. And many Americans feel that we are being forcibly prevented from acting as one by a partisan system that is corrupt to the core. This presidential election delivered that message loud and clear. Obama could not say that, though.
The liberal power brokers and spin makers insist that what happened on Election Day was an “aberration,” a violation of America the Beautiful. I personally have to resist and refuse that characterization. Any political assessment of the state of our nation that leads irrevocably to the resurrection of the Democratic Party-in-power is not an honest assessment. It is not a “fact” akin to global warming. It is spin. Everyone has a right to spin. But as Obama remarked ruefully in his Farewell speech, quoting his mother, “Reality has a way of catching up with you.” Reality is catching up to America, isn’t it? We have “homegrown” terrorists now. We see important alliances forming — such as Russia and Turkey — from which we are excluded.
We have white working class people in the Rust Belt who voted for Trump and more than a million black Americans who had voted for Obama but did not come out to vote for Hillary Clinton. Liberals, leftists and even Marxists worry deeply over this — how can people vote against their interests? I’d find this position laughable if it weren’t such a mind f**k. First the liberal elites define what everybody’s interests are. Then they castigate people for violating the definitions they have imposed on them.
Obama, to his credit, tried to steer clear of the blame game in his talk. Even so, when it came time to quote from George Washington’s Farewell Address, he avoided the passages that were the most prescient. Washington warned his post-revolutionary fledgling nation about parties, about their inexorable path to factionalism and their power to divide the country. I wish Obama would have included those lines. He came into office as an independent, not as a Democrat. He seemed unable or unwilling to hold his party accountable for its role in the extreme polarization of our politics. I would have liked to see him leave office the way he came in — as an independent. Even if that is an oversimplification, it still has meaning in these times of partisan strife. 39 percent of the country are independents today, based on the latest Gallup poll. This is down from 43 percent a year ago, though the drop cannot be attributed to the rise in popularity of political parties. Their “unfavorables” are sky-high. The drop has more to do with voters being coerced into joining a party in order to cast a ballot in a primary. Even so, independents are the largest community of voters in the country, and they have yet to receive the recognition and respect that is warranted.
Not long after Obama first took office, I interviewed the public philosopher Fred Newman as part of our ongoing weekly conversation series called “Talk/Talk.” In this particular dialogue, we discussed a book by Joshua Cooper Ramo called The Age of the Unthinkable, about the disconnect between the old ways of thinking about the world and the dramatic changes underway in the world. According to Ramo, we were ill-equipped to understand and respond to the increasing wealth gap because of that disconnect. We were having an existential crisis more than a financial crisis.
Newman strongly agreed. I asked him, then, what would be the new ways of looking at the rising inequality? He replied, “How could you know what the new ways of thinking about that are in advance of the actual building of what it is that we have to build to intervene on the problems that are happening? If something new or alternative which gives you a different vantage point hasn’t been built, you can’t know the answers … you have to abandon ‘knowing’ and the traditional understanding of that conception as a condition for creating the changes.” This approach, this radically methodological approach, in my opinion, needs to ground the movement for political alternatives to the bipartisan authoritarians. Otherwise, we will not be able to create anything new.
A small postscript: After Obama’s speech was done, he walked out into the audience to connect with friends and fellow travelers, to immerse himself in the faithful. Watching the tiny screen from my perch at 30,000 feet, and tuned to CNN, I listened as a gaggle of commentators offered their spectacularly un-insightful remarks about the evening. There was no audio on Obama’s encounters, just a visual. At one point, Obama found himself standing alongside Jesse Jackson. The two embraced, Jackson now carrying a lot of extra weight, making him seem out of place, while Obama is wiry and taut. It appeared, at least to me, that Obama was eager to move away, to move on to his next hug or handshake, but Jackson wouldn’t let him go. He seemed to have something more he wanted to say to Obama, something he couldn’t let go of. Their interaction was strained, the way someone who opened a door and someone who walked through it are never at peace with each other.
Somehow the scene brought to my mind Jackson’s speech to the Democratic Party Convention in 1984 in San Francisco. I was there, working with a team of African American independents who had come to persuade Jackson to either back a black independent for President or lead a walkout of his delegates and to continue his presidential run as an independent. Neither happened. In Jackson’s primetime speech, he offered an apology for his references to “Hymietown,” a slur to the Jewish community. Jackson explained to the crowd that he had stumbled and he had been hurtful. Yet, he insisted, he was not done being a leader. “God is not finished with me yet,” he said.
After my plane landed as I was riding home from the airport, I reflected on everything I had seen earlier, and on all the things I couldn’t see, that we can’t see because we don’t yet have the tools with which to see. I thought about America, my country, our country, and the painful and angry and fearful and joyful and uncertain juncture we are at. I thought, whether or not there is a God, there is an America. That’s a “fact” that crosses the ideological divide. And as for our people — we’re divided and we’re divisive. We’re full of anger and full of love. We’re searching for leadership suitable for this time in history and there is none. We’re using the tools we have, even as they are pitifully inadequate. America the Beautiful. America the Ugly. America the Conflicted. We’re not finished creating our country. Not yet.
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